This Native American comedy troupe uses humor to tell history

Bobby Wilson (left), Ryan Redcorn (middle) and Migizi Pensoneau (right) poke fun at those who use ‘sweats’ to one up each other in a skit at the Satellite Student Union on April 9, 2018. A sweat is a purification ceremony that Native Americans do to pray, sing, share stories and become one with Mother. (Benjamin Cruz/The Collegian)

For some, jokes are a light-hearted way to show personality. For others, they can be used to work through a difficult past. But for an indigenous comedy troupe, the 1491s, it’s both of those things.

Fresno State’s Cross Cultural and Gender Center is celebrating Diversity Awareness Week, and Monday night’s performance by the 1491s opened up about Native American traditions and stereotypes in a contemporary display of culture.

Hosted by the American Indian Programs and Services, the comedic group presented short videos and skits at the Satellite Student Union. A crowd of students and community members of all ages cheered and laughed with each Native American topic brought up in the performance – including dreamcatchers, ancient burial grounds, powwows and prayers and sexuality.

The 1491s is a Native Indian group of writers, filmmakers and artists advocating for the spread of their culture. They came onto the entertainment scene in 2009 with the release of YouTube videos. Since then, they have been seen on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “TEDx Talks.”

Group members Bobby Wilson, Ryan Redcorn and Migizi Pensoneau took the stage and began with the viewing of one of their YouTube videos, titled “Cherokee – Turtle Island.” The music video details the Native American Cherokee people traveling the “Trail of Tears” after white settlers forced them to leave their homeland.

Though the lead singer in the video was dancing around shirtless to the rock song, the lyrics told a deeper truth about the history of the Cherokees: “They were driven hard across the plains and walked for many moons because the winds of change had made them realize that the promises were lies,” the frontman sang.

The evening continued with skits poking fun at Native American practices. One skit involved a prayer circle in which Wilson and Redcorn competed through prayer to the Creator. Another scene involved a traditional Native American song competition.

The performance ended with a sex and relationships discussion. Wilson interacted with different people in the audience and posed questions for Redcorn and Pensoneau to answer.

“It’s going to get a little steamy in here and a little, whatever, so if you have kids, you might wanna move them up front so they learn a little thing or two,” Pensoneau said.

For Native American audience member Skye Robles, seeing the 1491s was entertaining after growing up watching their YouTube videos. She also found educational value in their performance.

“I work with the youth, so being an instructor and educator, it’s kind of nice to see how my generation is doing more contemporary things to relate to our youth,” Robles said. “Even if it’s not the most appropriate at times, it’s still very relatable and enjoyable.”

Robles said both Natives and non-Natives can benefit from learning about Native American history.

“[People] are able to kind of get a feel of who we are,” Robles said. “We’re here, and we have the same humor as everyone else.”

Audience member Deserae Gallardo said the use of media can help teach students as they switch from text-based learning to multimedia material.

“[Students from younger generations] get their information through social media, through YouTube, so I think the 1491s being based on YouTube, it makes it easier for them to access that information and find somebody who’s representing them in some way,” Gallardo said.

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